COMMENTS: American TV Networks Grapple with Stateless

Julian Assange of seemed to snub the network nightly newscasts when he picked print media to publicize his Afghanistan War scoop. He selected two newspapers and a magazine as the recipients of his shared exclusive, a three-week window of embargoed access to his document dump of 92,000 secret Pentagon logs, covering the fighting in Afghanistan from 2004 through 2009.

The New York Times in the United States, The Guardian in England and der Spiegel in Germany were the mainstream media outlets Assange chose as his best prospects for leveraging eyecatching headlines in order to boost traffic to his online archive and encourage crowdsourced data-mining. One might expect the broadcast networks and their cable news colleagues to respond with sour grapes at Assange's disdain. Sure enough, "Nothing New Here," is the refrain in the latest of Ben Craw's vintage video mash-ups at Huffington Post. He calls it "a Frenzy of Frantic Yawning."

You will note, however, that few of the talking heads Craw selected to make his point that's insights into the conduct of this nine-year-long war were being dismissed out of hand--very few of them--came from the network nightly newscasts. Indeed the Afghanistan War was the Story of the Day on Monday on Tuesday, being selected to lead all three newscasts on both days and picking up another lead, on CBS on Thursday. Passed-over Pentagon correspondents at CBS, NBC and ABC gave the document dump proper respect:

"Some of these reports were really quite stunning to me. I certainly knew a lot of the information in general terms but the sheer volume and specificity is really astonishing"--ABC's Martha Raddatz.

"This massive leak provides incredible detail and insight into the war in Afghanistan. Day by day, battle by battle, it is a tough look at the worst of the war"--NBC's Jim Miklaszewski.

"The avalanche of documents, most of them classified secret, shows how the United States has been losing the war in Afghanistan one day at a time"--CBS' David Martin.

Next day, CBS' Martin went on to give us the Pentagon jargon for the Afghanistan War during the six year period covered by the documents--an "Economy of Force Operation, a euphemism meaning Not Enough Troops." During the period when the Pentagon diverted troops and technology to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, "the Taliban, taking advantage of sanctuaries in Pakistan and corruption in the Afghan government, made a comeback."

Many of the talking heads in Craw's video mash-up pooh-poohed this history as already heavily covered, well known and widely understood. The Pentagon correspondents were right to assume that the opposite is the case. The Tyndall Report chart (see Afghanistan Overtakes Iraq in the left-hand column) that compares coverage of the Iraq war with coverage of the fighting in Afghanistan reveals that it was not just the Pentagon, but the network nightly newscasts themselves, too, that diverted resources away from Afghanistan, turning a blind eye while the situation deteriorated.

This Pentagon trio found three repeated themes pervading the thousands of battlefield reports that comprised the bulk of the document dump. Each alone could cripple a counterinsurgency. In tandem, they doom it. First, as CBS' Martin mentioned, troop levels were insufficient to pacify and protect the population. NBC's Miklaszewski pointed out that US military commanders in the field "repeatedly complain about lack of resources." Second, there is no legitimate government in Kabul for the population to support: "corrupt and inefficient," CBS' Martin quoted from one document. "The general view of the Afghans is that the current government is worse than the Taliban." Third, ABC' Raddatz found "horrifying detail" about the slaughter of civilians, including a botched rocket attack that targeted an al-Qaeda commander but killed seven children instead. The Delta Force commandos wrote a warning memo that no one should find out about their snafu.

While on assignment in Uganda for 60 Minutes, CBS' Lara Logan had this insight into the impact of dead civilians. Even though the document dump claimed that the Taliban kills ten times as many civilians as NATO forces, "it is more of an issue for United States forces to kill Afghan civilians than it is for the Taliban to do so."

Given all this evidence of a doomed counterinsurgency effort, NBC' Miklaszewski asked the White House and the Pentagon to explain why they thought they still had a chance of prevailing: "Since most of these documents were written, the President signed off on a new strategy," was their response. CBS' Martin put it this way: "The goal is to create an Afghan government, complete with army and police force, that can fend for itself against the Taliban. But before that can happen, US troops will have to drive the Taliban out of Kandahar for the second time. The United States is not likely to get a third chance in Afghanistan."

So Assange's scoop was given high marks for military relevance from correspondents at the Pentagon. What about political relevance? How did White House and Congressional correspondents assess's contribution to the debate over the war?

From the White House right off the bat on Monday, CBS' Chip Reid heard that now-familiar yawn: "They are trying to make it sound like this is really nothing new." Reid was not buying: "I will tell you, they may be underestimating the problems here…If we are now going to bombarded with a long series of specific examples, that is going to make it more difficult for both the Afghan people and the American people to support the war." Tuesday, Reid pulled out historical polling data that shows popular opposition to the war in Afghanistan plummeting between 2003 and 2008. Support for the war now stands "at a mere 31%." The leaked documents "still threaten to turn public opinion against the war even more."

The House of Representatives does not agree with the electorate at large. Good Morning America anchor George Stephanopoulos agreed that "this is an unpopular war. It is losing support. There are real questions about whether it is winnable and how long the public will support them. These documents reinforce those doubts." Nevertheless Stephanopoulos assured ABC anchor Diane Sawyer that "this leak alone is not going to change the course of the vote" as Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama applied for another $33bn to pay to continue fighting. Sure enough, next day, ABC led with Jonathan Karl's coverage of the House vote to approve war funds: "For the most part it was Republicans who made the case for the Obama Administration's policy in Afghanistan and gave them the votes." He noted that in the last year, opposition to the war in Congress by House Democrats has more than tripled, from 32 votes to more than 100. Karl quoted the anti-war leader Rep Dennis Kucinich: "WikiLeaks' release of secret war documents gave us 92,000 reasons to end the war."

On the diplomatic front, too, the network nightly newscasts treated Assange's scoop as newsworthy. NBC's Andrea Mitchell covered the efforts of the State Department to reassure the government of Pakistan about the Pentagon's suspicions of "double dealing," the secret diversion of some of the $7.5bn in US military aid by its ISI spies to fund Taliban guerrillas. Those reassurances do "not mean that they do not reflect what Washington really thinks about Pakistan's shadowy spy agency." ABC's Raddatz pointed to a CIA analysis that estimated that 95% of all suicide bombers operating in Afghanistan were graduates of a pair of Pakistani madrassahs near Peshawar that were visited by Gen Hamid Gul, the former chief of ISI. NBC's Miklaszewski landed an interview with Gul: "I deny it vehemently, outrightly. I think it is mischievous. It is fictitious and it is fabricated." Well, at least he did not say Nothing New Here.

CBS anchor Katie Couric followed up with a question to White House correspondent Reid from a Twittering viewer: "Can Pakistan even be called a partner at this point?" Reid's answer was too cute by half. "Despite all those claims in the WikiLeaks documents, the White House says Yes." So Reid established that, yes, it is possible to call Pakistan a partner. Presumably, what the question was driving at was whether such a characterization has any underlying veracity. Reid passed on that straightforward answer.

So, the nightly newscasts had a unanimous thumbs up for Assange, right?

Not quite. The documents he provided were greeted as newsworthy. His political intervention in the debate over the war was treated as effective. There was no yawn. There was something new here. As an Afghanistan story, it had bona fides. As a media story, something did not smell right.

"Assange is clearly an advocate and opponent of the war," NBC's Mitchell pointed out. "It is a brave new world when journalists use sources like WikiLeaks." Disappointingly, Mitchell did not explain what she was driving at. CBS' Jeff Greenfield tried to put his finger on why is so troubling. He quoted Assange's self-confessed agenda to seek "significant reforms in US and allied policies in Afghanistan" in order to make the observation that "traditional media outlets do not talk that way."

CBS' Greenfield argued that WikiLeaks is non-traditional in two ways. First, it is not a traditional gatekeeper, assessing the reliability of data before releasing it: "One person with a laptop can reach as far as the biggest newspaper or TV network. If that person wants to publish, it is published." Second, is an "online site with no headquarters, no physical presence anywhere."

Of the two points, the latter is intriguing; the former is contradicted by the facts. Assange's very decision to use long-established gatekeepers--the Times/Guardian/Spiegel--refutes Greenfield's notion that publication by laptop has the reach of traditional media. Assange's decision to base his Website in no nation does make a difference. Jay Rosen at PressThink calls it the "World's First Stateless News Organization." Greenfield quoted the following putdown of by Floyd Abrams, the longstanding First Amendment attorney: "It is not as if at least I have any information to suggest that they are highly trained in national security matters." Abrams, seemingly unintentionally, hit the nail on the head. has no training in national security matters because it belongs to no nation that needs to be secure. It is untrained in national security because it is indifferent to it.

Ultimately, this was the problem the network nightly newscasts had with Assange and his scoop--not the quality of his information but his indifference to the security of this nation. The domestic debate between supporters and opponents of the war in Afghanistan can always be framed as a debate over what is in the best interest of the United States. Assange's intervention cannot be covered that way--nor can it be covered as an intervention on behalf of an ally nor of an adversary nor of Afghanistan itself. exists outside of the category of making nations secure or insecure.

So, ABC's David Muir on Monday covered the anxiety of's Adrian Lamo as he communicated with Bradley Manning, the Iraq-based army private who is suspected of exfiltrating the data dump while humming Lady GaGa tunes. Lamo grew "increasingly alarmed, eventually turning him in" for fear that he was putting American soldiers' lives at risk. ABC's Raddatz, Wednesday, charged that Assange had not redacted the names of "numerous" Afghan informants cooperating with US occupation forces so those informants may now be at risk for retaliation. Raddatz had John McLaughlin, the onetime Acting Director of the CIA, characterize Assange: "Amateurs like WikiLeaks either do not care or have no idea how to protect sources and how to protect lives." Thursday, CBS' Martin led off his newscast with a condemnation by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman Mark Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He paraphrased them as accusing of murder, although he failed to provide a soundbite to back up such an extreme charge. "They might already have the blood on their hands of some young soldier," was the closest he offered. "The battlefield consequences…are potentially severe and dangerous."

The fact that Martin overreported his story so uncharacteristically offers a hint about what really rattles the American news media about the independence of It is not its opposition to the US war effort in Afghanistan--but the site's baffled indifference to the entire notion of national security as a category.


Thanks for the review. I've followed this story almost exclusively through online sources and find this report useful and informative.

Wikileaks threatens institutional media outlets by purposely undermining governments and corporations. If this is Wikileaks mission then this new media-outlet itself becomes, by its own admission, a National Security risk.

The term 'National Security' doesn't really mean that much though. Akin to 'the American People'?
I don't watch TV news -- haven't done so in decades. I have a print (text) bias. Hats off to you for the diligence.

However, your coverage does not include CNN and FOX, which are primary news sources for Americans. Jon Stewart's monologue on Tuesday highlighted four "nothing new" talking heads -- someone on CNN/Anderson Cooper ("there's nothing new, really, here"), someone on Larry King CNN/Larry King ("storm in a teacup"), someone on CBS ("the substance is not new"), and Charles Krauthammer (a print columnist) on FOX ("nothing is essentially, fundamentally, new").

It's not clear in this article (I haven't spent a lot of time on your site) if you are talking about the "evening news" or if you also include morning news shows and mid-day news shows and shows like Good Morning America. Or are you including only news from the big three that is also posted online? (The chart for 26 July lists only news bits that have online video.)

Here's an itemized review of those links that deal specifically with this claim:

* NBC: Leaked war docs provide details, no bombshells.
* NBC : Will WikiLeaks data dump damage diplomacy? ... "the documents do support widely held suspicions that Pakistan's intelligence agency secretly supports the Taliban."
* CBS : Gov't Secrecy Vs. Right to Know - profile of Wikileaks with explanation of how it is different from media/traditional gatekeepers
* ABC : Who Sprung the Leak? - profile of Bradley Manning

Of the two stories you've highlighted in TYNDALL PICKS FOR JULY 26, 2010 that actually deal with the substance of the story ... both have a "nothing new" headline or summary. One of them is the source of your Jim Miklaszewski quote that you're using to buttress your argument that the electronic media gave this story "respect." The lead, however, by Brian Williams, positions the information as something insiders have known all along. (His comment about the Pentagon having not had the time to read the doc
Sigh. You really should warn people that their comments are limited to N characters.

The rest of this comment can be found by clicking on my name - it will go to my Posterous account.
Kathy --

I apologize about your HTML problem. Let me provide the link to your Posterous post here.

To answer your questions:

1.Yes: Tyndall Report covers the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts, not CNN, not FOX News Channel, not Good Morning America, not midday news shows.

2.Nothing New Here: the point of my departure from Huffington Post was that these Pentagon correspondents were not using the fact that the broad strokes of the document data were already known by those in the know as a reason to dismiss them as irrelevant or uninteresting or not newsworthy. On the contrary. Your quote from Brian Williams makes this point: the documents "tell a story that some veterans of the region know full well" but, by implication, a vanishingly small proportion of his audience falls into that category, so they should be brought up to speed. The headlines created by helped that to happen.

3.Why did these columnists, reporters and talking heads not report on this story already? That is precisely my point: "…it was not just the Pentagon, but the network nightly newscasts themselves, too, that diverted resources away from Afghanistan, turning a blind eye while the situation deteriorated."

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